The Conversation

Film is an intrusive medium. Even though we willingly suspend our disbelief to accept movies as fiction, there’s a strong element of voyeurism that’s inherent in the art form. Movies allow us to spy and eavesdrop on the lives of others. We see private actions we wouldn’t ordinarily see and hear private conversations we wouldn’t ordinarily hear.

The Conversation (1974) is one of a handful of films that openly — and successfully — exploit this key attribute of the medium. As in Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960), we’re simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the main character. In all three films, the protagonist is psychologically detached from others and — perhaps because of the extreme detachment — obsessive in his observation of other people. The three protagonists also intensely guard their own privacy.

In The Conversation, the protagonist is Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman). He spies on people for a living using sophisticated listening devices. Well aware of what he can do to other people, he is compulsively paranoid that others will invade his own privacy. His girlfriend (played by Teri Garr) doesn’t even know what he does for a living.

While editing one of his surreptitious audio recordings, Harry discovers what he thinks is evidence that a murder will be committed. This echoes Blowup (1966), where a photographer uses the isolating and magnifying power of visual technology to uncover a possible murder. Here we have the added pleasure of a fine character study. Gene Hackman gives an understated performance that’s easily one of his best.

More relevant today than when it was first released, The Conversation (1974) probes the boundaries between technology and privacy. Francis Ford Coppola directed it in-between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), and just before Apocalypse Now (1979). If you’ve familiar with the other three films, you may be surprised by how restrained and personal this film is. In its own way, it’s just as good as Coppola’s other films from the 1970s.

The Conversation
(1974; directed by Francis Ford Coppola, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Lions Gate
List Price: $13.99 (Blu-ray), $7.99 (DVD)

Friday, September 9 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies